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Is the divestment movement really hurting fossil fuel companies?





Hello, friends! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This is our last newsletter of 2018. But fear not: We will be back. Look for the next issue of What on Earth? in early January.

In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday!

This week:

  • Divesting from fossil fuels — how meaningful is it?
  • How pop culture tackled the environment in 2018
  • News flash: Canadians use a lot of wrapping paper
  • Environmental regulations aren’t as costly as you think

Is the divestment movement really hurting fossil fuel companies?

(Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

When the UN climate conference was at its darkest point last week — no new agreement and concern countries wouldn’t arrive at one — one organization hoped to be a bright light.

Environmental campaigners announced that more than 1,000 companies had joined their cause — fossil fuel divestment.

“The reach and impact of this global movement is huge — major institutions with almost $8 trillion US in assets have commited to divest from the likes of Exxon and Shell,” said May Boeve,’s executive director, in a statement.

Like voting with your wallet, divestment has been a powerful tool. Historically, it has played a role in turning public opinion against South African apartheid and tobacco companies.

Unlike a boycott, the idea behind divestment is to cut off or move investments out of a company — in this case, ones that extract and/or burn fossil fuels for profit.

Of the few Canadian organizations on board, it’s mostly faith-based groups and NGOs. (Laval University and the Canadian Medical Association are outliers.)

Eight trillion dollars worth of divestment sounds impressive, but does it make a dent, let alone a difference?

Some argue that divesting doesn’t drive share prices down, and may, in fact, leave less eco-concerned investors positioned to snatch outstanding shares. It also means very little withbig oil companies that are private (and thus don’t sell stock).

Energy companies have funded research suggesting it could harm your investment portfolio, a warning that could scare a pension fund, for example. But “clean capitalism” magazine Corporate Knights released a study in October estimating the New York state retirement fund would be $22 billion US richer had it divested from fossil fuel stocks a decade ago.

The fact that the chief executive of British oil giant BP recently slammed divestment suggests the industry feels threatened. So maybe the movement is changing minds.

Divestment has a role in “saying it’s no longer OK for the world to say they care about climate change and then make money off of it,” said Jessica Green, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Green says climate change has led to institutionalized pressure, meaning investors, including shareholders in fossil fuel-burning companies, demand regular reporting on climate risks and impacts.

Divestment is “shifting the baseline of what is expected of big multinationals and fossil fuel companies,” Green said.

Keep in mind, divestment has never really affected its targets’ bottom lines. For example, South Africa’s economy didn’t suffer, but divestment was part of the chorus of arguments that came together to end apartheid.

In terms of halting climate change, Green said strong government policies, investment in renewables and reducing oil and gas subsidies are better strategies to take.

“There are a bazillion different levers to pull and we have to pull all of them,” said Green. Divestment “is one of them.”

—​ Anand Ram

Pop culture takes a closer look at our changing planet

Making people understand the scale and unintended consequences of environmental degradation has often been a challenge — just ask the scientists who have spent the past few decades sounding the alarm about climate change.

Yet that hasn’t deterred climate scientists — and it hasn’t stopped artists, either. Films, visual art, books and music remain powerful means of expressing the ways we have altered the natural world and our conflicted feelings about that.

Here are three of the most powerful artistic statements on the environment in 2018.

Annihilation (film)

Based on a series of sci-fi novels by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation was one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences of the year. The basic plot: As a result of some sort of environmental disturbance, one part of the continental U.S. has become so treacherous and, frankly, bizarre, that it is not only uninhabitable, but slowly expanding. Natalie Portman, in the photo above, plays a biologist who is part of a small team sent to explore “Area X,” which contains some horrifying mutant animals. (The film is on Netflix, though it is not recommended right after your holiday dinner.)

Anthropocene (photo exhibition/film)

In Anthropocene, photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier have created an exhibition that shows, in beautiful, appalling detail, how we have despoiled the Earth to satisfy our modern lifestyle. Highlights include oversize photos of a plastic landfill in Kenya, marble quarries in Italy, oil extraction in Nigeria and potash mines in Russia.

The Overstory (book)

The latest novel from U.S. author Richard Powers is unorthodox, ambitious and weirdly profound. Nominated for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Overstory follows characters from different walks of life — including a university student, an engineer and an eco-activist — to demonstrate our deep, healing relationship with trees. If it sounds fanciful, it is. It’s also poignant. But here’s the sobering takeaway: While humans may not survive an environmental disaster, the trees will.

Andre Mayer

Was there an environmentally themed piece of art that impressed you this year? Tell us about it.

Resolutions for 2019

It’s a time of celebration and reflection, as well as anticipation of what the new year will bring. Do you have resolutions for 2019, specifically of the environmental variety? If so, we’d love to hear what you have in mind.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The UN climate conference in Poland wrapped up last weekend with the announcement of a broad “rulebook” for how countries would report their progress on cutting emissions. Environmentalists were disappointed that countries wouldn’t agree to more aggressive targets. The mood was decidedly less triumphant than Paris in 2015.

  • On the sidelines of last week’s climate talks, an Australian farmer named Tony Rinaudo shared his wildly effective methods of regenerating forests, a key strategy in neutralizing carbon emissions. You want mindboggling numbers? Over 30 years, Rinaudo’s method is responsible for regrowing six million hectares of trees in west Africa.

The Big Picture: Wrapping paper use in Canada

At this time of year, there are a lot of gifts to wrap. But how much paper do we use? According to Zero Waste Canada, we consume 545,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and bags. How much is that, actually? Well, see for yourself.


Environment regulations: Cheaper than you think

(Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

What if you went to a store and when you took your item up to the till, it ended up costing you half or even a 10th of the figure on the price tag?

For one thing, you might consider shopping there more often.

Along those lines, industry often kicks up a fuss when the government proposes new environmental regulations. But an updated study released by the Smart Prosperity Institute last week found the Canadian government typically overestimates the cost to businesses of pro-environmental measures like vehicle emissions standards, measures to curb acid rain and a ban on ozone-depleting substances.

In five case studies, the Ottawa-based think-tank found the cost ended up being half to a 10th of the initial government estimate, while saving the government more money than anticipated on things like health-care costs.

“Where we have looked at actual costs and benefits, environmental regulations cost less than we think and generate more benefits than we expected,” said Stewart Elgie, executive chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute and the lead author of the report.

He said it’s now “commonly accepted” among researchers that the cost of environmental legislation to business is routinely overestimated.

Why? Regulation drives innovation and economic models used to generate estimates have trouble accounting for how that will reduce costs, Elgie said.

In the case of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, legislation pushed companies to find substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were safe for the ozone layer. The reason alternatives such as  hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) weren’t known before is because no one was looking for them. But they ended up costing roughly the same.

Similarly, Elgie said constant innovation has led to the plummeting cost of wind and solar energy.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses across Canada, released a report earlier this year criticizing the quality of government cost-benefit analyses used to draft regulations (although it didn’t suggest that overestimates were the problem).

Obviously, bad estimates don’t lead to the best decisions. So what’s to be done?

Elgie says he hasn’t had much luck convincing governments or economists to halve their cost estimates as a matter of routine.

But the Smart Prosperity Institute and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce do agree on one thing: Governments should do more followup after regulations are implemented to see what the real costs are and whether they’re providing the desired benefits.

In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce released a new report on carbon pricing this week, making it clear that businesses support the idea and are perhaps more forward-thinking about environmental regulation than some give them credit for.

Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal





A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist





Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’





Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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